Part 6: The Supervisor as a Coach

Part 6: The Supervisor as a Coach

Article Jun 30, 2009

     If you're already a supervisor, or if you're working to become one, this article can help prepare you for one of your main responsibilities: facilitating the professional growth and development of the people you supervise. There is so much material out there that with a little effort and time, you can develop expertise in this often-overlooked dimension of leadership.

Helping Your Subordinates Grow

     How do you help your subordinates grow? Management guru Ken Blanchard, in his book Leadership and the One Minute Manager: Increasing Effectiveness Through Situational Leadership, provides a structured approach. His methodology includes components of coaching. What follows is an adaptation combining Blanchard's situational leadership model and "coaching" as presented in the National Fire Academy course "Leadership III: Strategies for Supervisory Success."

     A common strength of these approaches is that they take into account the varying developmental levels of the people you work with. You'll have to use different strategies and tactics to meet the various needs of people at different stages of their careers and different performance levels in specific areas.

     It is important to note that supervision and coaching are collaborative processes. You work with those you supervise, providing guidance and structure for them, and together you work out a course of action. If your subordinates don't participate in the process and develop a feeling of ownership, neither you nor your subordinates will make much progress.

What Is Coaching?

     What comes to mind when you hear the word coach? A tough, knowledgeable, inspirational person prowling the sideline during the game? The person who taught you to swing a bat, racket or club? Today there are even "life coaches" and "executive coaches." What do coaches do? They help people grow, improve and perform better.

     Remember that one of your roles as a supervisor is to evaluate the performance of your team members. For an illustrated guide to this, see Coaching Analysis Model #1 (Figure 1), drawn from a 2006 Washington State University supervisory training publication. After evaluating and describing a subordinate's performance, you have four courses of action: You can challenge, train, counsel or mentor them. Keep these in mind—we'll come back to them.

Situational Leadership

     Successful organizations have dynamic and effective leaders who influence others to participate in achieving the organization's goals. A dynamic and effective leader responds to the needs of his followers, adjusts his leadership style to meet those needs, and accomplishes organizational goals through committed and competent employees. A supervisor who utilizes Blanchard's concept of situational leadership to facilitate the growth and development of subordinates will need three basic skills: flexibility, diagnosis and communication.

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     Flexibility allows you to shift appropriately between directive and supportive behaviors—the basic behaviors in situational leadership. Use directive behavior when you need to make a decision quickly or when the consequences are significant. Use this style with people who are inexperienced or using new skills. You tell your subordinate what to do, as well as when, where and how, and closely supervise their performance. Your subordinate does not participate in problem-solving or decision-making. This is one-way communication. On the other hand, supportive behavior is two-way: You encourage your subordinate to become involved in problem-solving and decision-making.

     These leadership behaviors form the two axes that demonstrate four leadership styles: directing, coaching, supporting and delegating (see Figure 2). These are similar to the four outcomes of Coaching Analysis Model #1: train, counsel, challenge, mentor.

Evaluation and Diagnosis

     To follow Coaching Analysis Model #1, you have to evaluate your subordinate's performance to determine your course of action. Likewise, following the situational leadership model, you must diagnose your subordinate's development level based upon their level of commitment and degree of competence. Commitment is related to confidence and motivation. You can use performance objectives in the affective domain, the motivational and emotional aspects of performance, to help determine the person's level of commitment. Competence is related to knowledge and skill, which are in turn related to cognitive and psychomotor domain performance objectives.

     In situational leadership there are four development levels: the enthusiastic beginner, the disillusioned learner, the reluctant contributor and the peak performer. These levels equate to different combinations of commitment and competence (see Figure 3). You determine your subordinate's development level in two ways. First, you look at their overall development. Second, you look at development related to specific tasks. With each of the four developmental levels, you use a different leadership style: direction for the enthusiastic beginner, coaching for the disillusioned learner, support for the reluctant contributor and delegation for the peak performer.

     The diagnosis you perform in your coaching analysis is related to satisfactory or unsatisfactory performance. If performance is unsatisfactory, you determine whether the behavior is a skill deficiency. If a subordinate's unsatisfactory performance is related to a skill deficiency, you use training methods to correct the behavior. If it's not, you use coaching methods. Coaching Analysis Model #2 (see Figure 4 on page 66 from the same WSU publication) breaks down each of these tactics further and guides your course of action based upon the answers to several questions.

     The coaching analysis models provide you with clear questions to ask to guide your action. Situational leadership describes particular behaviors to apply when implementing your chosen course. Both models require communication and active listening skills.

Additional Steps and Questions

     Here are some additional coaching steps related to unsatisfactory performance and a checklist, similar to Coaching Analysis Model #2, to guide you. These are adapted from material provided by the American Society for Training and Development.

  1. Establish agreement that a problem exists and what it is.
  2. Discuss solutions.
  3. Agree to a plan of action.
  4. Follow up on implementation of the plan.
  5. Praise improvements or schedule more coaching.

     Here are some questions you'll need to consider.

  • What, exactly, is the problem? First, separate the behavior from the person. Then identify the cause rather than the effect. Often, when we say "The problem is…" what we're really stating is an effect or consequence of the problem. Identify obstacles to satisfactory performance. Listen to your subordinates—they can help you in this process.
  • Does your subordinate know there's a problem? Your subordinate may think his performance is acceptable. Providing too little feedback can lead to such perceptions.
  • Does your subordinate know what your expectations are? Have you made them clear? If your subordinate doesn't know what you expect, he will not realize there's a problem with not meeting expectations.
  • Does your subordinate know how to meet your expectations? Even if you've made your expectations clear, your subordinate may not know what to do to meet them. This is the time for training, practice and education.
  • Are there obstacles affecting performance that are outside your subordinate's control? These could be a lack of supplies, equipment failure, dispatch problems or crowded emergency departments. Part of your job is to remove or minimize obstacles to peak performance.
  • Are there negative consequences to good performance? Does the technically competent provider who likes what he does and does it well always end up given the "problem" provider as a partner, with the idea that he will "fix" the problem? Do workers who complete tasks and get a lot done end up getting more work?
  • Is poor performance rewarded? Does the individual who completes tasks rarely or poorly have tasks given to others? Is the supervisor who never evaluates or provides feedback to his subordinates allowed to sit in the office all day and watch HBO?
  • Could your subordinate perform to standards and meet expectations if he chose to? If the answer is no, you may need to give this person the opportunity to work elsewhere.


     This small bit of information only scratches the surface. If you want to continue your growth and development in EMS, it is important to find out more. You can find countless resources online; I just Googled the term supervisor coach and turned up more than 3.1 million hits. Blanchard's book is inexpensive and can be read in a day.

     A supervisor should play an active role in the success and improvement of those he supervises. There are two fundamental leadership behaviors, directive and supportive, and four courses of action available under the coaching analysis models: challenge, train, counsel and mentor.

     If you practice using your communication skills, work with your subordinates to reach agreed-upon diagnoses of behaviors and developmental levels, facilitate development of courses of action, and then apply the appropriate balance of leadership behaviors, you can make a difference for your subordinates, yourself and your organization. That's a win-win-win scenario.

     Next time—The next installment of this series will look at leadership competencies.


     Schneier CE, Russell CJ, Beatty RW, Baird LS, eds. The Training and Development Sourcebook. Amherst, MA: Human Resource Development Press, 1994.

     Blanchard K, Zigarmi P, Zigarmi D. Leadership and the One Minute Manager: Increasing Effectiveness Through Situational Leadership. New York, NY: William Morrow and Co., 1985.

     National Fire Academy. Leadership III: Strategies for Supervisory Success, 1st ed. United States Fire Administration, 1994.

     Washington State University. Supervisory Training: The Supervisor as Coach. WSU Human Resource Services, 2006.

     Darraugh B, ed. Infoline Coaching and Feedback Checklist. American Society for Training and Development, 2008.

     Michael Touchstone, BS, EMT-P, is chief of EMS training for the Philadelphia Fire Department. He has been involved in EMS since 1980 as an EMT, paramedic and instructor. He has participated in EMS leadership, management and educational development initiatives at the local, state and national levels.

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